Monday, October 17, 2005
Every Signature Tells a Story: Sparky Anderson and the Missing Name
I expected to go home empty handed from Sparky Anderson's charity auction in 1990.
We had justed moved from Connecticut to Michigan, and definitely did not have money to spend on sports memorabilia.
But I read at story about an event to benefit the Tigers manager's charity, CATCH -- Caring Athletes Team for Children's and Henry Ford Hospitals. The name alone shows that Sparky can butcher acronyms like he can a post-game interview.
There were to be big-ticket items auctioned off, as well as some things offered for sale. And Sparky would be on hand, too, to greet fans.
And sure enough, there were bargains I couldn't pass up. Game-used Tigers caps sat piled on a table for $10. I picked up one from coach Vada Pinson, a darn good hitter in his day.
Then there was a whole table of signed baseballs. It seemed like Sparky asked people to sign as they passed through Tiger Stadium during the season, since there were only American League players. Alas, no former Mets were there.
I never buy autographs that aren't signed in front of me because there is just too much forgery out there in the hobby. But I figured Sparky is a little different than some guy with a table and a Sharpie at a card show. And the prices were very reasonable, most of them cheaper than what it would cost to buy an official ball at a sporting good store.
The players ranged from Ken Griffey Jr. to some minor stars and everyday players. I was on a tight budget, but found a couple of my favorite players: Fellow Missouri grad Phil Bradley, Blue Jays third-baseman Kelly Gruber and Mariners closer Mike Schooler.
There were piles of other items, too, mostly things left over from stadium giveaways.
I could tell I was out of my league pretty much as soon as the auction started. People tend to overbid when they know the money is going to charity, and there were people with deep pockets writing big checks for a steady stream of signed jerseys and bats as well as things like a week at Tigers fantasy camp.
Detroit Free Press columnist Bob Talbert was the auctioneer. Talbert was a large man with a ponytail, which he grew after vowing not to cut his hair until the Tigers won another World Series. Bob died some years after, still with long hair.
Something funny happened when he tried to take a break. A professional auctioneer came to the podium and tried using that style that sounds like a different language. I couldn't figure out a single thing the guy was saying. Apparently no one else could, either, because the bidding stopped. Dead. It became very awkward because it was apparent that no one was going to bid on a single item until this guy left the stage. So Talbert had a shorter break than he expected.
I had long-sinced fallen into spectator mode when it came time for the door prizes. Talbert pulled out a bat autographed by the entire 1989 Tigers team. Not one of the franchise's best groupings, to be sure. But a bat signed by any full major-league team is a wonderful thing.
Talbert pulled out the winning entry: "All the way from Grand Blanc....David Murray."
I literally jumped out of my chair and shouted "YES!" scaring the Dickens out of the people sitting around me. Talbert said he had never seen anyone so excited about winning a door prize. But this was good stuff.
These Tigers weren't a complete collection of stiffs. Guys on the bat include Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris, Chet Lemon, Guillermo Hernandez, Frank Tanana. Some of these guys are just shy of Cooperstown, and might make it eventually.
They had signed a Mike Heath bat, and it was obviously used. And it even came in an official major league sanitary sock to keep it neat. It's easily one of the coolest things in my collection.
I would have been pleased walking away with my Kelly Gruber ball and Vada Pinson cap. This was beyond my wildest expectations.
Sparky arrived as the auction winding down, and people formed a line for him to autograph things.
I was studying all the names on the bat while waiting, but couldn't find the skipper -- the guy I knew was the sure-fire Hall of Famer. The coaches were all there, so it seemed strange that Sparky wasn't on the bat. Finally my turn arrived.
"Sparky, I can't seem to find you on the bat," I said.
"Well, it's got to be there," he said, taking the bat and turning it over and over. It wasn't there.
"Well, we'll take care of that right now," he said, signing right near the Louisville Slugger logo.
I asked him to personalize it, too. I realize that hurts any resale value, but there's no way I'm ever selling this bat!
I was clearly out of my league financially with all the folks at the auction, but I couldn't have been happier with the way things turned out. It just goes to show, you never know when a baseball adventure will take place.